Advent Series 3: The awkward guest

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Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare the way before me. The voice of one crying from the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

John came baptizing in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin. …He was clothed with a camel’s hair shirt with a leather belt around his waist and he ate locusts and wild honey. He preached, saying “There comes ONE after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” The Gospel of Mark 1:2-4, 6-7

By Bruce Stanley, President / CEO of Methodist Home for Children

Each year during Advent, the awkward and difficult figure of John the Baptist makes his appearance in the Gospel readings. He comes out of the wilderness and calls the people of God to accept responsibility for their sins. He is engaged in monastic disciplines of the mortification of the flesh, wearing a shirt designed to chafe and a belt designed to impinge. He is consistent in word and deed and insists that we rethink our Christmas plans. We need to be spending our time not only redecorating but reorienting. Prepare the way!

Twenty-five years ago, as I was preparing for Christmas Eve services at my new appointment on Highway 17 in Pender County, an uninvited guest came into the church. He had an old ten-speed and a modest backpack and bedroll. Clearly in need of a shave and a shower, he said, “I am Peter.”

He then asked, “Who are you? Where is Francis?” I replied that Francis had moved to Dunn and I was the new pastor. Then Peter told me a little about himself: He did not have a conventional home; instead he migrated along the coast with the weather. As he traveled, he said, he stayed in Methodist churches and, in fact, in previous years Francis had hosted him. Peter’s directness took me a bit aback when he informed me that not only did he need to sleep in our church but that, in the past, arrangements had been made for him to eat his meals at the restaurant across the street. He also needed somewhere to do his meager bit of laundry.

With Christmas Eve upon us, I was not about to tell him there was no room in the inn. I invited him to stay with us at the parsonage but he firmly refused. I went across the street and made arrangements for his meals, I took him to get fresh toiletries and did get him to agree to come to the parsonage so he could get a hot shower and shave. We kept his few clothes and did his laundry while he was back at the church sleeping on his bedroll.

One of the church elders came in and expressed discomfort with these arrangements, making an obvious statement: “This building was not designed for this.” Agreed. Nor was a stable designed to be a neonatal unit nor a feeding trough a crib, and yet 2000-plus years later we celebrate the way they were reoriented and repurposed.

Peter again refused to stay with us on Christmas Eve, insisting he would be more comfortable in the church. Following the Christmas morning service, one of our retired couples inquired what he was doing the rest of the day and Peter said he would be on his way. Spontaneously they offered to give him a lift. They put his bicycle in their trunk and drove him down Highway 17 to the South Carolina border. When they returned home, they called the parsonage to say thanks. They said they couldn’t quite explain it but this had become perhaps their favorite Christmas day ever and, while they may have helped him with a ride, he had helped them remember what our faith is about — providing a way for others.

A quarter of a century later this awkward and unlikely angel remains one of my favorite Christmas visitors. He came reminding us that our ministry remains, “Make straight the paths and prepare the way.”

Read Week 4: Whose child is this?